‘Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying can tell us about Life and Living’ by Brandy Schillace (Elliott & Thompson Ltd, 2015).
The jacket cover to Brandy Schillace’s Death’s Summer Coat tells us that the work ‘explores our past to examine what it might mean for our future. From Victorian Britain to contemporary Cambodia, forgotten customs and modern day rituals, we learn about the incredible diverse […] ways in which humans have dealt with mortality in different times and places’. This synopsis describes the book well, as it is a broad-brush approach to the history of death and dying, although it is not, as the back cover recommendations state, a book that offers ‘important insights through scholarly […] narrative’. Although Schillace is a cultural historian and medical humanities scholar, she is also a fiction writer, and this background helps clarify the personal narrative content and story-telling stance she uses throughout the book.
Chapter one begins with a personal narrative and reflection of the death of her grandfather. From here, Schillace uses this chapter to exploit the unusualness of death-positive events such as Death Salons and Death Café’s (gatherings of individuals breaking social ‘taboos’ by talking about their own mortality (p. 2) to question why people in the West (a term she uses liberally but never defines), tend to make death ‘alien’ (p. 11) despite it being a natural occurrence. Schillace asserts that by engaging with her book, and learning about how ‘other cultures’ engage with mortality, her reader can approach their own mortality with less fear, and thus make death a subject to be talked about.
Entitled ‘Dead and Knowing it’, chapter one ranges from whether animals grieve, to how ‘other cultures’ approach the issue of death (including the development of death rituals), to briefly noting some academic death theory, such as Hertz’s ground-breaking anthropological work that explores death as a process rather than an event (p. 18). All this is set against the medicalisation of grief in the contemporary West, and the dichotomy Schillace sets up allows her to raise some questions about death in the contemporary Western. These range from modern industrialised societies typically not allowing people enough time to grieve due to a lack of adequate compassionate leave; the medical focus on preserving life which sometimes means also prolonging the dying process; and how, in general, there is a fear and denial of death in the West due to a loss of death-related rituals with the power to heal the grieving. With such a wide-ranging coverage, the chapter skirts over several issues. It notably fails to engage with the challenge that, whilst the West may be largely disengaged from dealing with real-world experiences of death, death per se is not as marginalised as Schillace claims (p. 10) if we consider how the media provides (often graphic) examples of death, dying, and grief 24/7.
Chapter two, ‘Eat Your Dead (and Other Advice)’, takes an anthropological stance and explores what Schillace’s death-denying contemporary West might learn from ‘other cultures’ about approaching mortality. To do this, Schillace draws on death rituals from various geographical and cultural contexts, notably Tibetan Buddhist sky burials, head-hunter rites, and necro-cannibalism; although none of which she suggests are suitable for todays’ Western world(!) Instead, Shillace attempts to normalise these rituals by relating the goals of these activities (disposal of the dead, dealing with the grief of bereavement, and continuing bonds with the dead) to Western acts. But this chapter, as with the rest of the book, verges on the side of superficiality in the way it deals with cultures distinct from those she deems Western, and I am unconvinced that much could be taken from the comparative rituals and put into meaningful practice outside their home context. For me the decontextualisation of ‘other culture’s’ rituals hints at colonialism, and marginalises debates regarding appropriation and orientalism.
Chapter three has a historical focus, and starts by exploring the notion of a ‘good death’; a sociological term for a death deemed culturally appropriate. Schillace suggests the concept of ‘death as potentially good emerges across the West’ (p.73), but in chapter two, she briefly mentions how Buddhist preparations for rebirth include death rituals, and notes the centrality in Tibetan Buddhism of the Bardo; the rituals that take place between this existence and the next (pp. 46-8). However, the eighth century Bardo is a far older concept of a ‘good death’ than those found in the Western Christian tradition such as the Ars Moriendi (c. 1415-1450) and I was left unclear as to Schillace’s comprehension of a both a ‘good death’, and her socio-cultural religious understandings.
Chapter three does include some interesting historical notes though, with medieval plague narratives, post-Reformation be-jewelled skeletons, the shift from the priest to the doctor as a death-bed expert, the rise of anatomy, and the commodification of death, all topics that may well be new for her intended audience; with its lack of references and overly-generalised content this book not aimed at the scholar but seemingly at members of the general public interested in learning more about the history of death and dying.
The history of death in the West continues into chapter four which focuses on the Victorian and Industrial Revolution era. Memento Mori photography that depicted death as sleep, and the mourning jewellery made from the hair of deceased loved ones are highlighted as examples of continuing bonds (although this phrase is not used), and give weight to Schillace’s contention that in this time the emphasis of death shifted from a focus on the mourned to the mourner (p. 112). However, with a lack of in-depth substance, the chapter gives this period a golden-era of mourning feel, which marginalises social status as a theme and ignores the socio-cultural stigma of the poor and disposed without the means to grieve in the appropriate Victorian manner.
Chapter five touches on ethical issues surrounding death, from body snatching, through to museum displays of human remains, to moves for cadaver-free anatomical training; tricky topics which could make uncomfortable reading for a lay person. Once more though the broad brush approach and lack of analysis means the chapter lacks real substance. Whilst the book fleetingly mentions Andreas Vesalius (the so-called father of anatomy) and his depiction of the anatomisation of a female corpse and anatomical wax Venus figurines, it curiously (or conveniently) ignores the thorny issue of women’s bodies, death, and voyeurism.
Chapter six extends the medical side of the book into the realms of doctors and how, in the contemporary West, dying is managed. People trained to vigil with the dying and assist the bereaved in the early stages of grief are mentioned briefly, as is the current ethical dilemma of physician-assisted death. Although Schillace notes Kübler-Ross’s seminal work on compassionate care for the dying (p. 145) and touches on hospice care and the clinical training of doctors in chapter six, the reader is then left to join the dots regarding the need for medical professions who deal with the dying and death to receive further support and training. For a book trying to address grieving in the death-denying contemporary West, this seems a notable omission from the issues she raises.
The last chapter addresses current death rituals in the West but there are some minor inaccuracies. Schillace suggests that religious perspectives on death deal largely with the afterlife (p. 226), but totally ignores the pastoral care rituals (Hebrew; tahara) embedded in Judaism. Moreover, she writes that Parsis in India leave their dead to the elements (p. 227) when in fact the corpse is picked clean by vultures and/or incinerated via solar panels channelling the suns heat. She also endorses the uncomplicated appropriation of religious rituals and teachings for non-religious purposes (p. 230), but the unsophisticated manner in which this is dealt with echoes neo-colonialist narratives and effectively dumbs-down complex and culturally embedded traditions.
However, it has to be said that there are many people who still find death a taboo topic. So, whilst the personal tenor and broad sweep approach of Schillace’s writing may take it away from being a scholarly work, these could well make the topic more accessible to the general public. The book ends as it began with an epilogue that is deeply personal and by the end of the work Schillace does feel a like someone you might have chatted with at a death-positive event. With its high readability factor, I am sure Death’s Summer Coat will prove highly popular with Death Salon and Death café attendees.
Reviewed by Dr Christina Welch, who is a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies, and Programme Leader for the MA; Death, Religion and Culture, at the University of Winchester, UK. Her current research is on late-medieval carved cadaver sculptures, and Death and the Maiden imagery in the early Reformation art, and in contemporary erotic coffin calendars.
Correspondence to Christina Welch.
Hertz, R. (1960 ) Death and the Right Hand. (trans. R & C Needdham). Glencoe, Ill: Free Press
Kübler-Ross, E. 92003 ) On Death and Dying. London: Routledge